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Library of Congress builds the record collection of the century

The sounds of everybody from Duke Ellington to Jelly Roll Morton to obscure surfer dudes are preserved at a Library of Congress facility in Virginia. Access is limited, but that is about to change.

May 08, 2011|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • RECORD COLLECTION: Gene DeAnna displays some of the Library of Congress' musical holdings.
RECORD COLLECTION: Gene DeAnna displays some of the Library of Congress'… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Culpeper, Va. — About an hour south of Washington, D.C., deep beneath rolling hills near the verdant Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, lies a storehouse filled with bounty.

At one time, during the Cold War, that treasure was cash — about $3-billion worth — that the Federal Reserve had socked away inside cinderblock bunkers built to keep an accessible, safe stash of funds in case of nuclear attack.

Photos: America's record stash

Now what's buried here, however, is cultural rather than financial: The bunkers are a repository containing nearly 100 miles of shelves stacked with some 6 million items: reels of film; kinescopes; videotape and screenplays; magnetic audiotape; wax cylinders; shellac, metal and vinyl discs; wire recordings; paper piano rolls; photographs; manuscripts; and other materials. In short, a century's worth of the nation's musical and cinematic legacy.

This is the Library of Congress' $250-million Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, a 45-acre vault and state-of-the-art preservation and restoration facility on Virginia's Mt. Pony. It's here that a recent donation from Universal Music Group, nearly a quarter-million master recordings by musicians including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby, is now permanently housed. Some staff members busy themselves daily cleaning and gluing fragile 100-year-old films back together; others meticulously vacuum dust from the grooves of ancient 78 rpm discs, which are washed before being transferred to digital files that can be accessed by scholars, musicologists, journalists, filmmakers, musicians and other visitors.

As part of the Library of Congress, this trove is available to anyone, free. But because of the complexities of copyright law, access is restricted to the library's reading rooms in Washington and Culpeper. Library officials, however, are poised to unveil a new program that will significantly expand public access to a big chunk of the library's goods, even if it won't provide carte blanche availability to everything stored there. A news conference is scheduled for Tuesday to announce the details.

The library's main storage facility induces a chill, literally: It's kept at 50 degrees and 35% relative humidity to prevent materials from degrading. It's even frostier at the opposite end of the property in the vault for volatile nitrate film, which is cooled to 35 degrees.

The long hallway also can spark images of the closing scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," although it's not a single airplane hangar-sized room full of crates packed with who-knows-what treasures. Instead, the second-floor hallway leads past 17 vaults, each of which yields shelf after shelf filled with platters of vinyl, shellac or wax or magnetic tape in various formats: open reel as well as audiocassettes, four- and eight-track tape cartridges and digital audiotapes. There also are a good number of vintage wax cylinders as well as metal master discs.

The breadth of the library's stock is impossible to summarize. But in addition to copies of every published recording registered for protection in recent decades with the U.S. Copyright Office, the library has acquired personal collections from classical music giants such as Leonard Bernstein, composer Aaron Copland and pianist Wanda Landowska, in some cases including never-released test pressings, as well as every 78 rpm disc recorded by jazz titan Jelly Roll Morton.

It possesses tens of thousands of lacquer discs from NBC Radio, including the network's complete archive of World War II coverage; documentarian Tony Schwartz's trove of audio recordings from the streets of New York; and half a million LPs, among which are dozens of surf and hot-rod music-themed discs that Capitol Records issued in the '60s to capitalize on those crazes, including "Hot Rod Hootenanny" by Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos, with cover art and songs co-written by fabled car designer Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

The sound vault is so extensive that when Universal Music Group's gift was announced, Gene DeAnna, who heads the recorded sound section, didn't bat an eye. The new donation, which takes up a mile of linear shelving space, is one of the largest single gifts to the library ever. But it represents only about a 1% expansion of the audio collection, which typically grows by 120,000 to 150,000 items per year, about two-thirds of which is sound recordings. And within are essential recordings of the American experience.

When producers at Sony Music's Legacy division were working on the new box set "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings: The Centennial Edition," for example, they tapped the library for some metal masters and shellac discs that were better than what the label had in its own archive.

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